Photographing Soho by Barbara Nadel

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Cameras are such easy, everyday things to have now. I was out in central London earlier this week with mine, taking shots for a book I plan to write set in Soho in the 1970s. Wandering around taking pictures of chi-chi restaurants and self consciously bo-ho little shops, I suddenly felt really quite sad that I hadn’t taken any photos back in the 1970s. In those days the place was very different. Then it was awash with sex shops, brothels, strip clubs and peep-shows as well as the numerous characters that wandered the streets and sat in the bars. I remember them all, even if I don’t have so much as one photograph of any of them. When recreating the long, hot summer of 1976, I will have to rely on my memory, my friends memories and the historical records that I have accrued about that place and time.

I was a teenage drama student then and, together with my fellow ‘thespians’, we all used to hang out in Soho and its environs being ‘artistic’ and indulging in a lot of underage drinking. Our favourite pub was actually The Salisbury on St Martin’s Lane. Even now a hymn to over-wrought Victoriana, the Salisbury back then was a pub where gay men could be themselves and where the women and girls who frequently accompanied them could have a drink without being hit-on or pawed. I was one of their number and can recall many wild nights of too much alcohol, a lot of feather boas and a great deal of laughter in the Salisbury. One very strange night, a friend of mine went home with a ballet dancer who turned out to be a bathroom wrecking maniac. I was briefly pursued by a huge middle-eastern pimp who ran a whole rack of rent-boys in Piccadilly. I can’t remember how either of us survived – but we did.

It’s odd now to think that places like sex shops and porno cinemas were our playgrounds then. Whether we didn’t know or care to think about the exploitation and corruption behind such places, I really can’t say now. But I can still remember hanging on for dear life to my friend Johnston as a sex shop owner with a very bad wig on his head inflated his entire range of rubber sex dolls for an octogenarian with no teeth. We both left, running and crying with laughter. We’d go to films with titles like Naughty Little Vixens just to watch all the old men run in and out of the toilets the whole time. Again, we’d do so for a laugh. I couldn’t tell you what any of the films were about then and I still can’t now. We’d usually top an evening of such activity off with a plate of pasta in some little Italian restaurant where the food would be so plentiful, four of us would share one portion. Then, likely as not, we’d all walk home. None of us had any money and with terror alerts (the IRA back then) on the tube every other day people were not so keen to travel on the underground. It was a time of fear and anxiety for grown-ups like my parents who were worried for their jobs and sometimes, given the bombing situation, for their lives as well.

But for kids, it was a fun time even if the environment in which we lived was shabby and sometimes threatening. People often talk about the recent past, particularly the seventies, as a time of monochrome hues, a place of black and shades of grey. My own recollections are much more colourful and I do really wish I’d had a camera then to capture at least some of it. But then maybe I don’t. The interior of the old Salisbury that I see when I close my eyes is, I know, so much better than any photograph.

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